Britney: a tale of our ‘Toxic’ times?

Now even a celebrity breakdown has to be staged in public for the cameras.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Culture

We have become used to the spectacle of celebrities publicly pouring out their personal sins and demons through the confessional box of the media, and of PR agents making big statements about their clients going into a rehab clinic, as if they were announcing a starring role in a new movie or a world tour. Now this treatment of personal trauma as public entertainment has reached a new (low) level.

With the latest episode of the Britney Spears show in Los Angeles, we have been treated to what looks like a public nervous breakdown, staged before a crowd of gawpers and camera-flashing paparazzi. What next – a reality suicide show?

A tearful Britney, reportedly in turmoil over the breakdown of her marriage and rumoured to have been on a drink-and-drugs bender, grabbed a pair of clippers in a downmarket LA hairdressers and crudely shaved off her hair in full public view, before going to have a tattoo done in a tatty parlour – again with cameras in attendance – while weeping and apparently complaining about everybody wanting to touch her all the time.

In another age, at this point somebody might have drawn a curtain around a distressed young mother. No chance of that today. Spears’ problems were now public property, and her private turmoil became the subject of feverish debate across the internet. Was she in need of serious psychiatric help, or was it all a cynical publicity stunt? Or was shaving off her Hollywood blonde locks even, as one contributor to Comment Is Free suggested, a bold statement of Britney’s independence and strength? (Somebody else pointed out that this latter pet theory might be slightly more persuasive if she had not been sobbing and talking gibberish throughout, and then re-appeared hours later in a bad blonde wig.…) (1)

Meanwhile the salon’s owners quickly set up their own website to auction off the remains of Spears’ hair like religious relics, while complaining about other people trying to cash-in on eBay. ‘It’s pretty crazy all the frauds and stuff that’s out there’, they said. You’re telling me.

The most common objection to this sort of thing is to ask why the news has to be filled with such showbiz gossip and trivia. But there is far more than that going on here. Celebrity culture is becoming a prism through which we observe and work out attitudes to the big issues today.

For example, the emphasis upon celebrities as ‘role models’ means that their behaviour is endowed with wider meaning. In particular, the focus on celebrity (mis)behaviour is helping to shift the line between what society considers to be a private matter and a public issue – to the detriment of both the private and public spheres. Thus, as in the Spears carry-on, personal problems can become a public football. And at the same time, debating attitudes towards important public issues – from freedom of the press to the very nature of our humanity – can be reduced to gossiping about the personal crisis of an individual ‘in the public eye’.

Celebrity culture has expanded to fill the empty space where society’s withered public and political life ought to be. Part of this no doubt is just a modern version of bread-and-circuses, turning the famous into a freak show for our entertainment – see how bitterly Britney’s fickle ‘fans’ turned on her during the head-shaving show. But there is often also a more serious ‘message’ being transmitted through celebrity news – in this case, a message about human vulnerability and the inability to cope with life without professional support.

Britney’s public breakdown came after she reportedly left a rehab clinic, where she has since returned. This follows on from a stack of other current stories about celebs going into rehab – ‘the new black’, according to one British tabloid newspaper. It seems that for any problem, from alcohol and drugs to allegations of racism on a reality TV show, seeking professional help in a rehab clinic is now the treatment of choice. So normal has it become that you can even become a star by singing a ‘controversial’ song about your refusal to go, go, go.

Many in the media are singing from the same song sheet here: that even the successful, the rich, the role models need help to deal with the stresses of modern life. It is a message that speaks to millions of others in our therapy culture. After all, unlike old-fashioned heroes, today’s celebrities are not supposed to live in another world. Instead they tend to be celebrated for their very ordinariness, looked upon as ‘just like us’. The celebrity-watchers might not be able to afford a stint in the Priory, but they too are increasingly told that they are stressed-out and cannot cope. And if even the success stories in society can’t handle their lives, then what chance can the rest have of breaking out? The miserabilist tendency has seized upon the latest rehab episodes as further ‘proof’ that being famous is terrible and damaging. So swallowing the mundane and mediocre is supposedly better for your health.

The flipside of us all needing professional help is that we supposedly need to be protected from one another. Whenever Britney appears in the news for her latest private/public mishap, somebody will latch on to one of her hit singles, ‘Oops, I did it again’, for a headline. But a better theme tune to capture the tone of the news today would surely be her song ‘Toxic’. Spears’ life has been held up as an example of the damage done by today’s allegedly toxic relationships, toxic families (especially ones that can be branded ‘white trash’), and the toxic masses – in short, toxic other people.

A song like ‘Toxic’ ought to remind us of Britney’s talent. Yet that doesn’t seem to count for much today. She has been relentlessly reduced to just another celebrity, talked about for her personal embarrassments more than her professional achievements. We have become familiar with the definition of a celebrity as somebody ‘famous for being famous’. Now, however, the obsession with celebrity culture has gone further, to the point where it risks reducing anybody’s life – from a global pop star to a prime minister – to just another reality TV peep show.

This is not good for those on the receiving end of having their personal affairs turned into the stuff of public sport. And it is not good for the rest of us, either. It reveals something truly ‘toxic’, not in our humanity, but in the attitudes now dominating our contemporary culture. Any serious debate about where society is heading needs to address the issues raised by these developments, from the nature of healthy ambition to the proper relationship between the public and private spheres. The focus on celebrity culture is helping to change the world we live in, before our very eyes.

The fact that ‘Britney Shears’ can become the biggest story on the planet is nothing to celebrate. But neither is it good enough to adopt a stance of snobbish disdain, ignoring such an ephemeral celebrity circus in the belief that it will go away after 15 minutes. I am afraid that in the absence of anything more substantial to shake up public life, similar episodes will soon be along to, well, hit us baby, more-than-one more time.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

(1) Breakdown or breakout?, Ben Hammersley, Comment Is Free, 19 February 2007

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